The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Liu Xiaodong
Signed in Chinese and dated 2001; signed in Pinyin and dated 2001 on the reverse
oil on canvas
152 by 136.5 cm.; 59 7/8 by 53 3/4 in.
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Galerie Loft, Paris and Hong Kong


France, Paris, Galerie Loft, Prostitutes, Transexuals and Nothing to Do Men, November to December, 2001


Red Flag Collection: Liu Xiaodong, Map Book Publishers, 2006, p. 74



Born in 1963, Liu Xiaodong first came into the public consciousness as a progenitor of the "New Generation" movement. Critics have commonly considered the "New Generation Art Exhibition" held at the National Museum of History in July 1991, curated by Fan Di'an, Yin Jinan and Zhou Yan, etc., along with the solo exhibition of Liu Xiaodong in the same year as the seed of the movement. It is worthy of note, however, that Liu Xiaodong had already begun to paint what would be categorized as "New Generation" art as early as 1989. Yin Jinan, who coined the term, explained, "Works of the New Generation tendency and an art of a closer observation of life were just beginning in the 1990s. New Generation artists wield a comparatively standard and stylistic visual language, coupled with their intimate experiences of daily life, in order to produce their brand of art. It is one that demonstrates a certain level of cultural specificity."1 Such is the assembled set words that accurately delimit the nature of and the concept behind the New Generation. Members of this coterie haven't been inflicted with the same historical burdens and scarring memories as their '85 New Wave predecessors, who obsessed themselves over the pursuit of "the ultimate purpose," "the absolute principle," "the greater soul" and other such metaphysical, humanist concerns. The younger New Generation artists channeled their energies onto the individual, the people; they diverted their eyes from the exalted spiritual life to the ordinary day-to-day quotidian; instead of inspecting from high above, they draw near to their subjects for a closer observation; they depart from a heated ideological discourse and arrive at a cool, aloof detachment. Liu Xiaodong's work thus encapsulates the essence of the New Generation, by Yin Jinan's definition. Through a seemingly Realist aesthetic, the artist portrays certain people in certain settings that wind up deviating from the standard people in standard settings touted by the Realist genre. Negligible, inconsequential split-seconds extracted from daily life become fodder for his compositions. Never bothering to emphasize selected elements or intended themes, never preoccupied with building the perfect picture, Liu Xiaodong has no other concern than to situate his images in an unapologetic air of objectivity. A visual objectivity accompanies an emotional objectivity—Liu Xiaodong's loitering figures betray very little about the artist's internal monologue, his creative impetus. In the end, he has shattered Realism. In fact, the nonchalance and the ennui that permeate his paintings find common ground with Li Xianting's "Cynical Realism." Lü Peng has said the following, "Clearly, Liu Xiaodong's art is the junction point that delivered contemporary Chinese art from the 1980s and into the 1990s."2

Spanning a mere year in Liu Xiaodong's twenty-some years of artistic practice, New York constitutes very little temporally yet marks a pivotal point in his professional as well as personal lives. In "Red Star Over China: Tenuous Peace" of 1993, an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in New York, Liu Xiaodong was invited to participate and thus flew over from Beijing. Yu Hong joined him, coming from Berlin where she herself was participating in another exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. They formally wed in New York and believing that they should stay for a while, they settled themselves in the city. It was in New York where Liu Xiaodong encountered Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-qiang, Xu Bing, Tan Dun and other artists who had previously moved to the United State, with whom he forged close companionships. Liu Xiaodong lived frugally at the time, moving homes quite regularly. He recalls, "I was staying in Brooklyn at first, then moved to a friend's home close to Columbia University in New York City. He happenedto be out of town. Then I moved again to Ai Weiwei's—Ai Weiwei sublet his place to Xu Bing, who returned to China, so he sublet it to me, so I remained there for a few months."3 Having been in good company, Liu Xiaodong found his memories of the time pleasant and warm. It was also during this year that Liu Xiaodong engaged in an introspective assessment of his own creative vision. "Having spent a year in the United States," he remarks, "I began to find painting outmoded. Exhibitions no longer revolve around paintings and indeed, they have become quite dreary. I find the act of painting much like the act of eating—what I eat can be likened to what I paint with, my desire to paint is at the same time a kind of hunger, a kind of thirst. What drives me to initiate a painting is desperately simple—I think of a dish, I think of something I'd like to eat, I discover a craving to articulate. Once I have the idea, I go and collect more stimuli and data for its execution."

During his American sojourn, Liu Xiaodong was constantly plagued by a fervent desire to express, to create, yet found the medium of painting limiting and insufficient. The quandary that bombarded him again and again through the year was this—how to convey the ambivalence, the oppression? Created during this very year of 1993, The Heavy Rain (in New York) (Lot 869) represents the manifestation of "New Generation" in the context of this Western nation. First, there is a topless Ai Weiwei sprawled on the bed, his face coated in plaster (according to Liu Xiaodong, American artist John Ahearn created plaster casts for both Ai Weiwei and Yu Hong at the time, but omitted Liu Xiaodong himself because he was suffering from a nasal infection at the time). Three other figures remain in the composition. The one on the left seems to be engaged in thought. The one in the center, though staring straight ahead, conceals his expression with the aid of his sunglasses. The one on the right is retreated into the sofa installed at the corner of the wall, curiously absorbed by the television set. The interior space of the studio is filled with the presence of these four characters, yet they are completely unconnected in, not palpably, not even covertly. The only motion detected seems to be the electric fan in the midst of oscillation, or the heavy rain that is descending beyond the glass windows. An impossibly typical New York moment is captured here, devoid of narrative, devoid of reason. On the other side of the window, caught in the rain, a passerby stands and peers through the glass. We, the viewers looking on from the other side, become the co-conspiring voyeurs, as if together we are invading the privacy of this ineffably ordinary scene.

Photographs play a primary role in Liu Xiaodong's creative processes. With the invention of photography, artists have grown accustomed to replicating then reenacting moments in time with the help of this technology. What eventually appears on canvas is the creative merge between the print and the artist's own recollection. A snapshot erases all possibility of alteration or variation. In light of this, Liu Xiaodong chooses to paint on-site and has continued to do so until now. Not only does the method allow for interpretative room and unforeseen effect, the artist relishes in the rapport he builds with his subjects for the duration of their "sitting," ultimately shaping the final product some more. For an artist who prefers to paint on-site, photography becomes an important vehicle to document the said process. Photographs, as a result, become a means, not an end. Snapshots have been taken throughout the course over which The Heavy Rain (in New York) was created, detailing how Chen Danqing's studio on 42nd Street had been converted into the backdrop depicted in the painting. The practice has overtime solidified into a routine. In his recent solo exhibition, "Liu Xiaodong: Hometown Boy," photographs as well as videos that have constituted his creative inspiration were exhibited together.

A familiar and consistent Liu Xiaodong emerges from this work. His subsequent visual language, creative method and artistic concept have followed its lead and morphed into something of a certainty. In this work, we also see a Liu Xiaodong on the cusp of transformation. Upon his return to his native country after a New York stint, the artist has burst out of closed spaces and into the open exterior. His compositions have ventured into nature, into society, into works such as Blind Man, Hot Bed, Three Gorges: Displaced Population and others. Works produced during this American sojourn have, at most, been lightly touched upon in the past. To pore over these very paintings is to testify to Liu Xiaodong's achievements during an intriguing time away from home.

[1] Yin Jinan, "New Generation and Closer Observation of Life," Jiangsu Pictorial, issue 1, 1992
[2] Lü Peng, A History of Art in 20th Century China, Peking University Press, 2006, p. 827 [3] "Interview with artist Liu Xiaodong," Bund Pictorial, February 2008

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China